Iran has been using the passenger Mahan Air carrier to transport weapons, military equipment and foreign fighters to various conflict zones in the Middle East in support of its expansionist agenda, experts tell Al-Mashareq.
According to a source close to Hizbullah, the carrier has been used to transport Lebanese and Syrian party members to Iran to take military training courses.
Salah Mansour, using a pseudonym out of concern for his safety, is related to a senior Hizbullah official and had been close to the party’s leadership in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley before splitting from the group.
He told Al-Mashareq that Mahan Air, and state-owned carrier Iran Air before it, had been granted absolute freedom to operate in Syria, and that Syrian regime forces appear to have no authority over these airlines.
"Vehicles carrying [military or militia] elements enter the airport’s campus directly without stopping for customs, passport or other checks," he said.
Mansour said he had traveled between Damascus and the airline's hub in Iran, Abadan airport, on one occasion when he was a member of Hizbullah, and also had escorted convoys of Iranian fighters to and from the airport in Damascus.
"Most of the weapons and ammunition used to be unloaded from the Iran Air and Mahan Air planes into airport hangars then loaded aboard trucks belonging to the party [Hizbullah] to be transported to Lebanon," he said.
Weapons and ammunition were unloaded from the aircraft directly into the trucks only a handful of times, he added, as the transfers were generally carried out with utmost secrecy.
A subsidiary of the IRGC
According to various media reports, Mahan Air is a subsidiary of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said Middle East Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies researcher Fathi al-Sayyed, who specialises in Iranian affairs.
The airline has been used to "transport weapons, military equipment and elements from Iran to Syria and Yemen to take part in the battles there", he told Al-Mashareq.
Some reports describe the airline as the main carrier for the IRGC and the Quds Force, its military arm in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, he said.
IRGC commander Hamid Arabnejad serves as the company chairman, he said, while another IRGC commander, Hamid Aslani, holds a senior position.
Illicit flights between Iran and Damascus were first observed in 2011, around the time of the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, and have increased in frequency over the last few years, along with similar flights to Yemen, al-Sayyed said.
Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, imposed a full ban on dealing with the company, he said, with the kingdom halting Mahan Air flights to Saudi Arabia in April 2016.
The US Department of the Treasury also has sanctioned the company for supporting the IRGC's Quds Force.
Weapons smuggling operations
"Unit 190 of the IRGC specialises in the smuggling of weapons to other countries like Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, and this unit uses all available means to transport cargo by land, sea and air through Mahan Air," al-Sayyed said.
This secret arm of the IRGC is overseen by Iranian businessman and senior Quds Force official Behnam Shahriyari, with some arms transactions carried out under the cover of the Behnam Shahriyari Trading Company, he said.
"A similar unit, known as Unit 198, took charge of handling air transport flights to conflict zones and the transport of mainly IRGC officers in complete secrecy," he said. "This second unit often handles the protection and insurance of operations carried out by Unit 190."
Al-Sayyed warned that "Iran, through commercial agreements with the Syrian Ajnihat al-Sham company, has put the Syrian company’s fleet of aircraft at its own disposal for use in suspicious air transport operations".
By using civilian and state-owned aircraft to transport military equipment and armed elements, Iran may have violated three UN resolutions related to the export of arms, said Assiut University professor Khaireddine Abdul Mutaal, an international law expert.
By using civilian aircraft for military purposes, he explained, Iran has "violated basic international air navigation and civil aviation rules".
Mahan Air’s involvement with the IRGC, "particularly the transport of weapons and fighters to conflict zones", could expose Iran to a new series of international sanctions, he said.